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Writing Skills Should Not Be Neglected

lecture 2

Ben Yagoda, How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them, February 2013, Riverhead Books, New York, 175 pp., ISBN 978-1-59448-848-1

One of my professors at the Université de Montréal advised me to write and read, read, read in order to translate well. Writing is something translators need to develop more now than ever. Although they write to express other peoples’ thoughts and ideas every day, several of my translator friends have confided in me that they do not enjoy writing. However, given the steady progress of automatic translation and translation memory tools, I predict that translators will need to proofread and revise more in the future, so writing skills will come in handy.

When in doubt, look it up

Ben Yagoda, an experienced English and journalism professor and superstar U.S. grammarian, has written this slim volume to discuss the 50 rules that his students tend to break. Yagoda says that, although people are reading, texting and blogging a lot, they mainly write the way they speak. In recent years, he has noticed that misspelled or just plain-wrong words and “train-wreck” punctuation have become more prevalent. His first rule to follow is: choose the right word. He provides three suggestions for word choice, summarized below (p. 5):

  • 1. Don’t use a long word when there’s a shorter one that means the same thing.
  • 2. Avoid word repetition, but avoid “elegant variation,” which is too extreme. (N.B. Refer to The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (3rd ed., 1996) by HW Fowler for more information on “elegant variation.”)
  • 3. If the spelling or meaning of a word is unclear, look it up.

Accepted practices are changing in the “ever-shifting sands of grammar and usage.” However, just because something is popular does not mean it is correct. Yagoda points out that people tend to break some rules more than others. In particular, the subject and the verb must agree and any pronouns must refer to the subject of the sentence, for example:

  1. 1. I like Taco Bell because they serve enchiladas that are oozing with cheese. (Incorrect)
  2. 2. I like Taco Bell because it serves enchiladas that are oozing with cheese. (Correct)

The following sentence shows another typical error, with two options for correcting it:

Spielberg’s recent films have been disappointing, however his next release is expected to do well. (Incorrect)

  1. 1. Spielberg’s recent films have been disappointing, but his next release is expected to do well. (Correct)
  2. 2. Spielberg’s recent films have been disappointing. However, his next release is expected to do well. (Correct)


The author’s third book about writing, How to Not Write Bad, is amusing to read and full of tips. With regard to proofreading, Yagoda believes that a certain level of attention is lost when documents are not printed out (p. 12). The most effective way to improve your writing is to read it aloud, sentence by sentence and word by word. Shout it out as long as you won’t disturb your colleagues (p. 20).

Echoing my university professor, Yagoda writes that the one-word version of how to not write bad, or badly if you prefer, is to read. And reading aloud will help take you one step away from your work so you can take a fresh look at it. So write and read, read, read.

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